Will the new Page One meetings finally make the Times digital first?

Nothing else has worked so far

Last Thursday, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet announced a radical change: The Gray Lady’s twice-daily Page One meetings would no longer be focusing on the print paper.

Instead, these hallowed meetings will focus on which three to four enterprise stories will get prime real estate on digital platforms. The conversation will now ostensibly be focused on digital rather than print, and selected pieces will be placed on “Dean’s List.”

This declaration got considerable attention in the ongoing “future of news” conversation (see Steve Buttry and Mathew Ingram for just two examples) as well as attention from regular Times watchers like Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Observer, the consensus being that this move is a real shake-up in the way things get done.

And indeed this seems like a bold, like radical culture change for the Times, marking a major, decisive move that the outlet has needed to make for a while, as its attempt to move to a digital-first mentality simply hasn’t worked so far. While the paper is rightfully proud of its advances in multimedia and interactives, apps and native ads, these successes failed to spread cultural change throughout the newspaper.

The Innovation Report leaked in May detailed how the Times was stuck in a culture dominated by the print newspaper. And in my own research for my book Making News at The New York Times, as well as here on CJR and elsewhere, I’ve chronicled just how ingrained this print-first focus has been.

Even recently, when I was visiting the Times, a junior reporter showed me her Page One story from earlier in the week. She expressed how “amazing” it was that she got it on the front page, and how it would validate her abilities to the masthead editors. And she had a stack of a half dozen papers on her desk to save for posterity.

Part of the problem was that the website and other digital properties had essentially been running of their own accord, out of synch with the news judgment of what stories were considered most important by masthead editors. Instead, as my research revealed, a handful of people were in charge of what went up on the Web, and when. A single homepage editor sat next to another editor, and the discussion about what stories to place when and where on Web was almost entirely decided by them.

Though the executive and managing editors have had desks near the Web editors since integrating online and print staffs in 2007, there has rarely been much interaction. To address this problem, the Times got rid of the high cubicles originally built into the newsroom, and eliminated the linear rows that served as barriers between Web and print, creating a more hub-like operation.

Yet when I visited in November, I didn’t see a single top masthead editor actually sitting anywhere near these desks during the entire day I spent at the paper (with much of it a good view of the center of the newsroom), and didn’t see any evidence of masthead editors interacting with those in charge of digital. I saw what I had seen in 2010: a handful of people deciding the fate of what stories go up when and where on the homepage and across other digital properties.

The sole discussion of Page One meetings about digital strategy has been a rundown of stories on the Web, but no discussion of timing, analytics, placement, or importance of these stories.

The failure to provide any real discussion of Web strategy seems ironic for a paper with the stature of the Times. By comparison, in 2013 I visited The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Miami Herald, The Seattle Times, and The Des Moines Register. All of these metropolitan dailies spent time discussing analytics. And all of them at the bare minimum discussed when stories would be available for the Web and what might be ideal Web stories given the news organization’s readership.

Most impressive was the Register, which actually has a big board in the center of the newsroom where editors during the morning meeting plot out morning, afternoon, and evening stories for digital properties: Web, mobile, and tablet stories. The morning discussion even features a conversation about social media strategy.

The current Times masthead editors are likely up for the challenge of pushing to the forefront of digital strategy. Susan Chira helped the foreign desk become a leader in digital innovation at the newspaper (driven in part by necessity—much foreign news does not come in at times friendly for the print newspaper). And the recent appointment of Kinsey Wilson as an editor for innovation and strategy should help set a new tone for the newspaper.

The decision to make Page One focus on digital may not be as important to the masthead editors in the meeting as it is a symbolic statement to the rest of the newsroom.

The message is clear: Don’t focus on striving for a Page One story. Instead, focus on digital success. Care when the Web producer pushes for what is referred to by Web staff as “homepage love”—and expect that he or she is going to be backed up by far more powerful editors than ever before who are paying attention to what happens across digital platforms.

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Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs and a Tow Fellow at Columbia. She is the author of Making News at The New York Times.